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Four ACT Science Strategies

Oct 19, 2020

The ACT Science section often feels like a race against the clock — you only have 35 minutes to read 6-7 passages and answer 40 questions. How can you possibly answer all 40 questions, especially if science isn’t your strong suit? The good news is that the ACT Science section requires minimal science knowledge, meaning you don’t have to memorize a lot of information in order to do well on this section. Instead, this section tests your ability to quickly read about science and interpret data in the form of graphs and tables. With that in mind, here are a few strategies to help you tackle the ACT Science section.

Strategy #1: Adapt your reading strategy to each type of passage

Since the ACT Science section primarily tests how well you can read and understand scientific material, it’s important to know which reading strategies work best for each type of passage that appears on the exam. You will encounter three types of reading passages on the ACT Science section: data representation, research summaries, and conflicting viewpoints.

Reading strategy table for ACT science portion including data representation, research summary and conflicting viewpoints

We recommend slightly different reading approaches for each type of passage.

Approach #1: When answering questions about data representation and research summary passages, you should begin by answering as many questions as you can by quickly analyzing the visuals and scanning the text for key words. After answering as many questions as possible, you can go back to any questions that require you to be more familiar with the text, and skim the passage to gain a better understanding of the context. While this is the most efficient way to approach data representation and research summary passages, it isn’t the only possible method.

Approach #2: If you find it difficult to answer the questions using primarily the visuals, you could try skimming the passage first, underlining key words as you go, and then answering the questions. This second approach is also the one we recommend using when answering questions about conflicting viewpoint passages, since they usually aren’t accompanied by any visuals.

Strategy #2: Replace daunting information with a variable

No matter how strong your science background is, you will most likely come across unfamiliar concepts while skimming passages. Rather than letting advanced science terms and long-winded explanations confuse or distract you, it’s often best to cross out this information and replace it with a variable or something else to signify that the information is confusing. The ACT Science section typically does not require you to fully understand the background details of a study, experiment, or hypothesis. Instead, you’ll mainly be asked to interpret data and experiments, or identify similarities and differences between theories. For example, take the following introductory paragraph from a passage on ACT Form 72C.


Drilling Mud example problem


After the first sentence, the paragraph goes on to explain the uses of drilling mud. Instead of trying to understand exactly how drilling mud is used, it would be better to save time and mental energy by crossing out the portion of the paragraph that follows the first sentence and replacing it with a variable. By crossing out daunting information, you are preventing yourself from getting bogged down by potentially unnecessary scientific details. Remember that you can always come back to this information if a question demands.

Strategy #3: Use answer choices to determine what the question is really asking

The ACT Science section often asks straightforward questions in convoluted ways. For this reason, it’s helpful to carefully read the answer choices and use insights gleaned from the possible answers to help you translate a question into more direct terms. Let’s apply this strategy to one of the questions from ACT Form 72C.


science ACT example question


The question itself is pretty intimidating. However, if you look at the question and answer choices together, you can see that the question asks you to determine if a new experiment should be carried out using the procedure from Study 1 or Study 2. This information alone translates the question into a much more manageable form. To continue refining your translation, you should take a closer look at the answer choices, all of which involve Study 1 or Study 2 and Strain X or Strain N fruit flies. If you briefly glance over the visuals and accompanying texts of the two studies (not included here), you would see that Study 1 and Study 2 both involve Strain N fruit flies. Therefore, even without fully understanding the question, you can eliminate answers G and J, as those options represent the studies that were already carried out. You can also conclude that all the extra words in the question must be describing Strain X fruit flies and the conditions of the studies, which are exactly the same except for the SY medium used. You can then translate the question to something along the lines of the following:

If researchers wanted to test Strain X fruit flies in a 15% SY medium, should they repeat the procedure from Study 1 or Study 2?

Another quick glance at the studies reveals that Study 1 used a 15% SY medium, and Study 2 used a 5% SY medium. Therefore, the answer must be F, repeat Study 1 except with Strain X fruit flies.

As you can see, using answer choices to help translate a complex question into more direct terms is crucial to arriving at the correct answer without getting lost in the word mazes of the ACT Science section.

Strategy #4: Give yourself an allotted amount of time for each passage

As you start preparing for the ACT Science section, you’ll notice that most of the questions aren’t too difficult once you translate them; the trickiest part of this section is completing everything in 35 minutes. Given the time constraint, it’s helpful to practice by spending a predetermined amount of time on each passage, so you can train yourself to work within the time constraints. Since there are 6-7 passages, we recommend spending about 5 minutes on each passage. If you have leftover time, you can then go back and take a second look at some of the questions. Giving yourself time limits for completing each passage is important because it will help you develop a steady pace at which to move through the questions.

While this section of the ACT can be challenging due to time constraints and distracting language, a combination of strategy and practice will set you on the path to scientific success on test day.

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